The Oklahoma City Thunder looked like they might be on their way to stealing homecourt advantage with a Game 1 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night before starting to struggle on the defensive end down the stretch. There were quite a few opinions for why this happened, but it seemed one of the main concerns from the coaches on their couches was the Thunder's lack of Serge Ibaka in the fourth quarter.
Ibaka has established himself as one of the NBA's top shot blockers, but ended up playing less than 22 minutes on Sunday night. It was an interesting move from Thunder coach Scott Brooks considering Ibaka started the game, and unlike most games, he was able to stay out of foul trouble while he was on the court.
Considering the Thunder seemed to be better with Ibaka on the court, it's tough to say why he spent the majority of the game on the bench. The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry stood up for Brooks' decision in his column Monday morning, though, noting that Ibaka on the bench came out of necessity.
Everybody seems to be up in arms about Serge Ibaka not playing in the fourth quarter. Can't say I had a big problem with it. The writing was on the wall. You knew going into this series that the Thunder would play a good amount of small ball with Kevin Durant at the 4. That meant one of the bigs, Ibaka, Collison or Kendrick Perkins, would have to sit. It's been that way all season, and for the most part all season Thunder coach Scott Brooks has relied more on Collison or Perk in those situations. Brooks went with his gut and it didn't work. But by no means can you say pin this loss on that one decision.
Mayberry is right that Ibaka's presence likely would not have changed the outcome on Sunday night, but he later pointed out that it definitely would have made sense to have him in the game.
Having said that, Ibaka's presence as a shot-blocker certainly would have helped. Once Manu Ginobili got rolling, Ibaka could have protected the paint better, for sure. But here's the problem with thinking the adjustment was that simple. Had Brooks stuck Ibaka in there, he would have had to defend Duncan first and foremost. That could have led to the future Hall of Famer taking the torch from Ginobili and taking his turn lightening up the Thunder. Secondly, the Spurs, and Ginobili in particular, is savvy enough to read and react to Ibaka at the rim. Had Ibaka been there for weak side help, Ginobili easily could have dumped it off to Duncan or kicked it out to shooters once he broke down the defense. All what ifs, sure. But highly plausible ones. So, again, plugging in Ibaka wouldn't have necessarily won this game.
Considering Manu Ginobili was absolutely brilliant on Sunday night, it probably would have made sense to insert Ibaka just to see if he could have altered the course of the game when the Spurs started rolling late. As Mayberry notes, however, that likely would have just led to someone else -- likely Tim Duncan -- picking up the slack as Ibaka tried to help contain the world's greatest left-handed Argentinian.
Either way, it'll be interesting to see what Brooks does with Ibaka for the remainder of the series.